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Saudi Arabia: Riyadh Sends Mixed Signals On Cooperating In War On Terror

  • Charles Recknagel

Saudi Arabia, the religious center of Sunni Islam, has been ambiguous -- at least publicly -- about how much help it might offer to the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism. In particular, it has yet to say clearly whether it will let U.S. troops use military facilities in the kingdom for any future operations against Afghanistan. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports on where Saudi Arabia now stands and the reasons for its cautious approach.

Prague, 4 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a one-day visit to Saudi Arabia yesterday as part of a tour to consult with U.S. allies about Washington's war on terrorism.

But as he left the kingdom today to continue to Oman, Egypt, and Uzbekistan, he offered no answer -- publicly, at least -- to the question of whether Riyadh will provide military cooperation in any U.S. attack on targets in Afghanistan.

That question has surfaced repeatedly in recent weeks as U.S. newspapers have reported that Washington wants to use a military command center in Saudi Arabia to help coordinate air operations in the Afghan theater. The Combined Air Operations Center, built by the U.S. Air Force with joint financing from Saudi Arabia, is located at the Prince Sultan Air Base near Riyadh and is used by U.S. and Saudi forces.

Until now, Saudi Arabian officials have sent mixed messages regarding the kind of cooperation they might extend to Washington and whether it would involve the use of the highly sophisticated command center.

Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan said earlier this week that Riyadh does "not accept the presence in our country of a single soldier at war with Muslims or Arabs." At the same time, Western media quote unidentified Saudi officials as saying the kingdom has assured Washington privately that it can use bases in Saudi Arabia for any upcoming operations.

After meeting with King Fahd and other Saudi leaders yesterday, Rumsfeld said only that his discussions did not include negotiations for access to the bases and that he is satisfied with the level of Saudi support.

Analysts say that both Washington and Riyadh seem determined to publicly obfuscate the extent of Saudi cooperation because of Saudi Arabia's political sensitivities over the question. They say the conservative desert kingdom, the birthplace of Islam, fears that any overt announcements of its involvement in Western military attacks on a Muslim country might anger the Saudi and Arab publics and provoke violent acts by militants in the oil-rich region.

Colonel Bill Taylor, a U.S. military affairs expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., characterizes Saudi Arabia's position this way:

"The issue has been whether or not the Saudis, for their own domestic political reasons and their relationships with other Muslim countries in the region, whether they want to have a high visibility of us occupying and using [the command center] 24 hours a day to sustain operations against another Muslim country."

He says that Saudi officials may have decided the best way to defuse any tensions is to send out deliberately confusing signals as to their intentions, even as they are reported to have privately indicated they will cooperate with Washington:

"If I were a Saudi prince, and I knew that the worst thing that could happen in my country was to get a consensus against my policy, what I would do is issue contradictory [statements], have various members of my bureaucracies issue contradictory statements, to fragment any kind of [opposing] consensus, so nobody knows what is going to happen and when."

The presence of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf War is widely seen as one of the main reasons why Saudi-born extremist Osama bin Laden -- accused by Washington of masterminding the 11 September attacks -- has targeted Americans. The kingdom has seen several terrorist attacks on its soil in recent years, including the bombing of the Al-Khobar military housing complex near Dhahran in 1996. That bombing, in which bin Laden has denied playing a part, killed 19 U.S. servicemen.

The Saudi reluctance to appear involved with the United States -- which is its military ally -- over Afghanistan is in marked contrast to Riyadh's high-profile participation in Operation Desert Storm during the Gulf War. At that time, the kingdom and many other Arab nations joined in evicting Iraqi forces from Kuwait with no worries about taking part in a U.S.-led coalition against another Muslim state.

David Long, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer and regional expert, told RFE/RL from Washington, D.C., that the Saudi public wholeheartedly backed the Gulf War because it was seen as repelling a hostile force upon Saudi Arabia's own borders:

"The difference here compared to Iraq is the [nature of the] military operation. And even though there is a military component [in the war on terrorism, as in Desert Storm], it is not like having a front line and troop against troop. And the constraint is helping another country use military force against a Muslim society where there are no front lines, and that would be something very unpopular in Saudi Arabia."

As the Saudi government sends out mixed messages to its public about cooperating with the U.S., analysts say Washington remains determined to be able to use the Combined Air Operations Center near Riyadh because it offers superior military capabilities.

Military expert Taylor says that coordinating any air strikes from the center would be far more efficient than trying to do the same from facilities aboard U.S. aircraft carriers in the region. Taylor says:

"It is a highly sophisticated command-and-control center. It is on the ground [ready]. The links are already up via satellite, links out to our ships at sea, links to special operations forces. It is much easier, much more efficient to operate out of that base than it is to try to control these strikes, for example, from the USS Carl Vincent aircraft carrier or the USS Enterprise, the two carrier battle groups which are in the region."

The Combined Air Operations Center at Prince Sultan Air Base is currently used by the U.S. military in connection with air patrols over southern Iraq's no-fly zone.